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Reactive Parenting: What It Is & How to Stop Overreacting

Reactive parenting is driven by strong emotions in response to a child’s behavior, often resulting in impulsive, inconsistent, and punitive reactions like yelling or punishment. Parenting triggers, such as tantrums or defiance, can provoke these responses, which are disproportionate and may lead to damaging parent-child relationships and regret.

Factors influencing reactive parenting include child genetics, parent stress, and unresolved childhood patterns. The effects are detrimental, affecting a child’s anxiety, trust, and cognitive development. In contrast, responsive parenting focuses on understanding and meeting a child’s needs thoughtfully, fostering positive emotional development and secure attachments.

Strategies to shift from reactive to more mindful or responsive parenting include self-care, setting clear rules, empathetic listening, and seeking support.

reactive mom is angry daughter breaks a vase

What is reactive parenting?

Reactive parenting is a parenting style where the parent’s reactions are primarily driven by their strong emotions toward a child’s behaviors rather than a thoughtful understanding of the situation. Reactive parenting is characterized by the following.

  1. Emotions such as anger, frustration, and fear drive impulsive responses.
  2. Over-reactive, punitive, aggressive, and explosive reactions.
  3. Yelling, threats, punishment, or bribes.
  4. Lack of self-control.
  5. Inconsistency in reactive discipline is confusing for the child.
  6. Focus on immediate control rather than teaching the child or the long-term results.

What are reactive parenting examples?

Here are 10 examples of reactive parenting.

  1. Yelling or screaming at the child
  2. Punishing out of anger
  3. Reacting physically, such as spanking or grabbing a child in anger
  4. Using shaming or name-calling
  5. Resorting to threats or ultimatums
  6. Getting easily frustrated and snapping at the child over small issues
  7. Caving in to whining or giving in to tantrums
  8. Making fake promises
  9. Feeling personally attacked or insulted by a child’s misbehavior
  10. Making sarcastic or hurtful comments in response to a child’s behavior

Not every single instance of these behaviors indicates reactive parenting. Context and frequency matter. Reactive parenting often occurs when a parent is triggered.

What are parenting triggers?

Parenting triggers are specific situations, behaviors, or words that lead a parent to react impulsively, emotionally, and often negatively toward their children. These responses are disproportionate to the situation, leading to behaviors that leave parents feeling out of control and later regretful.

Here are 9 parenting triggers that can evoke explosive reactions from highly reactive parents.

  1. Tantrums: Loud, emotional, or aggressive outbursts from children can be very triggering for parents.
  2. Not listening: When children ignore parent requests, it can quickly ignite anger and frustration in parents.
  3. Defiance: Misbehavior or disobedience can evoke a strong reaction in parents if they feel their authorities are being challenged.
  4. Whining and complaining: The persistent sound can grate on nerves and make parents feel frustrated or helpless.
  5. Talking back: When kids act disrespectfully, it can feel personally wounding if the parent is sensitive to feeling disregarded.
  6. Sibling rivalry: Fighting, bickering, or aggression between siblings can be emotionally draining and triggering.
  7. Clinging and attention-seeking: It can be frustrating when kids constantly demand attention or interrupt.
  8. Messy play: Parents who value orderliness get irritated when kids make messes during play or don’t put away toys.
  9. Noise or chaos: Rowdy behavior, yelling, or loud noises from kids can aggravate.

What causes reactive parenting?

Peer-reviewed studies have found that 7 factors can predict a parent’s reactive parenting style.​1–5​

  1. Child genetic factors: Families with emotionally reactive parents usually have temperamentally difficult children, according to a 2007 longitudinal study involving 292 twin pairs published in Infant Behavior & Development.
  2. Gene-environment interaction: The 2007 study also concluded that the child’s heritable characteristics could evoke the parents’ negative reaction to cause hostility.
  3. Parent attribution: Researchers of a 2006 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology revealed that reactive parents tended to attribute their child’s misbehavior to malicious intent. This perspective caused parents to perceive having less power than their children triggering harsh reactions.
  4. Parent stress reactivity: The 2006 study also indicated that emotionally reactive parents had heightened stress reactivity, manifesting in higher cortisol levels.
  5. Parent psychological flexibility: Parents lacking psychological flexibility may struggle to attentively listen to their children during instances of misbehavior and to practice non-reactive parenting strategies, as found in a 2016 joint study by the University of Vermont and Middlebury College.
  6. Parent’s psychological well-being: Parental stress, lack of rest, and sleep deprivation contribute to over-reactive parenting.
  7. Unresolved childhood patterns: In the 2017 study “Parenting begets parenting,” researchers discovered that a cycle of intergenerational transmission of parenting styles exists, where inconsistent or hostile approaches to parenting can originate from the parenting methods experienced by parents in their own childhoods. This cycle highlights how reactive parents often raise reactive children, perpetuating similar parenting behaviors across generations.

What are the effects of reactive parenting?

Here are 11 effects of reactive parenting.​6–8​

  • Increased anxiety and insecurity: When parents react unpredictably, children become anxious, unsure of what will trigger a negative reaction. This can lead to them feeling insecure and walking on eggshells.
  • Poorer cognitive development: Excessive stress impairs brain development, executive function skills, and academic performance.
  • Emotional dysregulation: Children learn to manage their emotions by observing their parents. Reactive parenting teaches them that it’s okay to respond with anger, yelling, or withdrawal, hindering their ability to regulate their own emotions healthily.
  • Damaged self-esteem: Constant criticism, harsh punishments, or emotional outbursts from parents can deeply erode a child’s self-esteem and sense of worth.
  • Lack of empathy: Children are less likely to consider other people’s feelings and needs. Become self-focused and insensitive to others.
  • Loss of trust and increased lying: When children fear their parent’s reactions, they hide things and become less open, damaging trust.
  • Oppositional behavior: Over-reactive parenting dysregulates children’s behavior and reinforces their oppositional behavior.
  • Damaging to the parent-child relationship: Over time, both parent and child may withdraw from the relationship, leading to frequent conflicts, damaged relationships, and insecure attachment.
  • Difficulty forming healthy relationships: The unstable and unpredictable nature of reactive parenting can impact the child’s ability to form healthy, trusting relationships in the future. 
  • Mental health issues: A 2017 peer-reviewed Australian study published in PLOsS ONE revealed that hostile parenting was associated with poor mental health in children.
  • Child abuse: Reative parenting is significantly linked to child abuse.

Being a reactive parent doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve abused your child. It highlights the importance of noticing if you react strongly to your child’s behavior. Acknowledging these reactions allows you to focus on the dynamics of your interactions. From there, you can shift towards more proactive or responsive parenting strategies, helping mitigate any negative effects and improve the parent-child relationship.

Reactive parenting vs responsive parenting

Reactive and responsive parenting are two different approaches to handling children’s behavior. Reactive parenting is impulsive and driven by immediate emotions, reacting to a child’s behavior without considering the underlying needs or feelings, while responsive parenting involves understanding the child’s needs and responding thoughtfully and consistently.

Reactive parenting can lead to inconsistency and confusion for the child. It can exacerbate challenges and conflicts.

On the other hand, responsive parenting emphasizes empathy, patience, and communication, aiming to nurture and guide rather than control. It fosters a supportive and trusting relationship, promoting healthy emotional development and secure attachment in children.

Here are the comparisons between reactive and responsive parenting.

AspectReactive ParentingResponsive Parenting
DefinitionReacting impulsively to children’s behaviors, often with emotional or punitive measures.Attuning to a child’s needs and feelings, responding thoughtfully, calmly, and constructively.
FocusShort-term, aimed at stopping behavior immediately.Long-term, focused on teaching and guiding behavior.
Emotional ResponseOften based on frustration, anger, or desperation.Based on understanding, patience, and empathy.
Discipline ApproachPunitive and inconsistent may include yelling or harsh punishments.Consistent and supportive, uses discipline as a means of teaching rather than punishment.
Impact on ChildrenThis may lead to increased anxiety, behavioral problems, and decreased self-esteem.Supports emotional regulation development, self-esteem, and cooperative behavior.
Parent-Child RelationshipCan strain the relationship due to fear or resentment.Strengthens the bond through trust and mutual respect.
CommunicationMay lack effective communication, with a focus on directives rather than dialogue.Encourages open communication, allowing children to express themselves and feel heard.
Parent’s Well-beingIncreased stress, guilt, and burnoutReduced stress, improved mood, and a stronger sense of self-efficacy
OutcomeShort-term compliance and long-term emotional and behavioral issues.Long-term emotional intelligence, problem-solving skills, and positive behaviors.

How to stop being a reactive parent

Practice mindful parenting to stop being a reactive parent. Mindful parenting is a conscious, proactive, and non-reactive parenting style. Rather than defaulting to automatic emotional responses, be aware of your own emotions and react strategically to meet your long-term parenting objectives. This approach allows you to engage with your child deliberately, prioritizing thoughtful communication and meaningful interactions over quick fixes.

Here are 15 mindful strategies to help you stop hostile, over-reactive parenting and become a less reactive parent.​9–14​

  1. Prioritize self-care: Stress causes people to do things they are familiar with. Stressed parents often parent in the same way they were raised. Take care of yourself so you don’t burn out and you can support your family best. Examples of self-care include getting enough sleep, exercising, meditating, and doing yoga.
  2. Pause before responding: Take a moment to breathe and think before reacting to your child’s behavior.
  3. Speak calmly and respectfully: No yelling, insults, or threats. Model respect.
  4. Set clear rules: Having guidelines helps manage expectations and reactions.
  5. Be consistent: Inconsistency in parenting is a common trap that can lead to reactive anger and resentment. Avoid empty threats. Name a consequence you are prepared to enforce, then follow through.
  6. Listen empathetically: Seek to understand where the child comes from before disciplining.
  7. Attune to your child to de-escalate: Emotional attunement allows you to effectively de-escalate a conflict. When you are emotionally attuned, your child will feel that you understand them.
  8. Take parent time-outs if needed: Walk away until calm.
  9. Identify your triggers: Understand why a situation triggers a particular response in you.
  10. Use positive reinforcement: Encourage good behavior through positive feedback rather than focusing solely on punishment.
  11. Shift your attributional mindset: Separate your child from their behavior. Think positively about your child. Don’t take misbehavior personally or as a reflection on you. This will prevent your stress response system from going into a fight-or-flight mode.
  12. Pick your battles: Take a step back and re-evaluate what you are fighting about daily. Consider what will matter more in twenty years – garbage cleared or a good relationship with your child.
  13. Apologize to the child if you overreact: Repair rifts and model apologizing.
  14. Reflect after conflicts: Think through what went wrong and how to better handle it.
  15. Seek support: Sometimes, discussing your challenges with others can provide new strategies and perspectives.

Be patient with yourself. Non-reactive parenting requires practice and patience. Follow the steps and allow yourself to make mistakes from time to time. The key is not to let this become your autopilot reaction.

What is the opposite of reactive parenting?

The opposite of reactive parenting is an approach that emphasizes understanding a child’s emotions and needs, responding calmly and thoughtfully, and focusing on teaching and guidance rather than reactive punishment. Here are 7 parenting styles that adhere to this approach.

  1. Responsive parenting: This approach emphasizes responding thoughtfully and empathetically to children’s needs and emotions. It involves active listening, validation, and setting clear expectations with positive reinforcement. Responsive parenting builds children’s trust, communication, and healthy emotional development.
  2. Proactive parenting: This approach involves anticipating and addressing potential behavioral issues before they escalate and understanding and responding to the underlying needs or emotions that drive a child’s behavior.
  3. Mindful parenting: This approach focuses on awareness and deliberate responses. It involves recognizing and addressing your reactions and interactions with your child consciously. This method promotes a calm environment, facilitating child development and strengthening the parent-child bond through empathy and communication. Mindful parenting helps avoid impulsive reactions, leading to positive outcomes.
  4. Positive parenting: Positive discipline focuses on teaching children valuable skills through positive reinforcement and natural consequences. It involves understanding children’s actions and teaching proper behavior rather than using punishment. Positive discipline fosters self-regulation, responsibility, and cooperation in children.
  5. Peaceful parenting: This approach emphasizes resolving conflict and teaching children healthy ways to manage their emotions. It involves empathy, communication, and conflict resolution skills to build strong and positive parent-child relationships. Peaceful parenting fosters cooperation, problem-solving, and emotional well-being in children.
  6. Authoritative parenting: This combines warmth and responsiveness with clear expectations and firm limits. It involves setting clear rules, providing explanations, and enforcing consequences consistently and fairly. Authoritative parenting fosters self-discipline, responsibility, and healthy emotional development in children.
  7. Montessori parenting: This approach emphasizes independence and respect. It involves observing children to understand their needs and interests. This approach supports children’s natural development through exploration and learning opportunities. Montessori parenting fosters a proactive relationship, focusing on guidance and autonomy. It aims to develop children’s responsibility, concentration, and self-discipline, leading to positive growth.


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